While there's a strong story in here about the power of literature and the fragility of life, this movie takes a far too wistful approach, so it feels like a cheesy bedtime yarn rather than a look at horrors of Nazi Germany. As a result, it's difficult to feel the full force of either the wrenchingly emotional events or the provocative themes.
Set in 1938, the story opens as irreverent 12-year-old Leisel (Nelisse) is taken away from her mother, who is accused of being a communist. She's then adopted by the childless couple Hans and Rosa (Rush and Watson). But while the cheerful artist Hans makes her feel at home, Rosa is relentlessly harsh. Leisel also reluctantly befriends neighbour boy Rolf (Liersch) and embarks on a series of adventures, including stealing books from Nazi book-burning rallies. But the mayor's wife (Auer) doesn't mind Leisel stealing books from her library. And when Hans and Rosa take in a Jewish refugee boy (Schnetzer), he encourages Leisel to start writing her own stories.
Oddly, director Percival softens every dark element in Petroni's screenplay. The Nazis are like school playground bullies, while the Allied bombings leave buildings in rubble but dead bodies bizarrely intact and peaceful. Even the setting looks like a fairy tale, with magical snowdrifts and fanciful spires. And the strangest touch of all is the cheery voiceover narration by Death (Allam), which turns the most horrific atrocities into a kind of wry eventuality. Watching brutal murder presented as a sort of poetic justice is deeply disturbing.
By trying to make this story palatable for children, Percival has made a film that no one can engage with. The only character with any real complexity is Watson's Rosa, who shows more depth as the film goes on. Everyone else is likeable but superficial. At least the film looks terrific, and it has some gorgeous scenes in which Leisel's ability to tell a story boosts both her and those around her. But by making everything in this film feel so relentlessly artificial, Percival undermines the even more urgent message about searching for the truth.
Run time: 131 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 27th November 2013
Box Office USA: $21.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $76.6M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Production compaines: Studio Babelsberg, Fox 2000 Pictures, Sunswept Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 46%
Fresh: 61 Rotten: 73
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Brian Percival
Producer: Ken Blancato, Karen Rosenfelt
Screenwriter: Michael Petroni
Starring: Geoffrey Rush as Hans Hubermann, Emily Watson as Rosa Hubermann, Sophie Nélisse as Liesel Meminger, Ben Schnetzer as Max Vandenburg, Nico Liersch as Rudy Steiner, Roger Allam as Narrator / Death (voice), Oliver Stokowski as Alex Steiner, Heike Makatsch as Liesel's mother, Carina N. Wiese as Barbara Steiner, Barbara Auer as Ilsa Hermann, Levin Liam as Franz Deutscher, Rainer Bock as Bürgermeister Hermann, Sebastian Hülk as Gestapo Agent, Matthias Matschke as Wolfgang, Joachim Paul Assböck as Officer, Julian Lehmann as Liesel's Brother, Sandra Nedeleff as Max's Mother, Kirsten Block as Frau Heinrich, Beata Lehmann as Woman with Champagne, Martin Ontrop as Herr Lehmann, Robert Beyer as Jewish Accountant
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